A question to those once known as “the audience”

In my media and faith class, we are reading a book by Clay Shirkey, Here Comes Everybody (New York: Penguin, 2008).  Shirkey invites and reflects on participation in internet discourse by referring to us as “not just readers…but…members of the former audience.” (Shirkey, 10).   I would like to respond by saying that for some in the Church, this is probably wishful thinking; some are still quite content to be the audience.

I’m very interested in issues of global human rights.  I’m aware of various United Nations documents related to human rights.  I’m also aware of how little policing of such rights exists in the world and how capriciously the subject is attended to (or not).

So I found an article a friend recently posted on Facebook of interest.  Quite content to be the audience at the time, I did not post in response. It is a  philosophical article by Michael Boylan in The New York Times Opinion Page, May 29, 2011. The article was about whether there are natural human rights, or whether human rights are merely a social construction, subject to the relativity of one’s location in the world. How we answer has significant implications.(You can read it at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/are-there-natural-human-rights/.)

This is an important discussion for both church and society.  If we recognize human rights as only relative, then conversations about the denial of human rights in our reaction to the news (as with understanding the Holocaust or, more recently, the Arab Spring) really have no meaning, and governments can choose for themselves how they use power in relation to their citizens and neighbors. If the converse is true, then the “golden rule” applies and human rights ought to be internationally recognized and defensible.  If there are no “natural human rights” (originating in what it means to be human), and if, as some say, there is no moral compass external to human nature (God, the Divine, etc), then all we have left are social constructs, and when we impose one social construct over another, we can fall prey to Machiavellian, Orwellian, colonial, imperial, and other indefensible social constructs that raise one group of human beings over others for utilitarian purposes.

The fact that this issue has become an international subject of discussion in the Times and, more importantly perhaps, propagated onto the web, is good news and ought to encourage the Church and have us sit up and take notice. Responders were quick to bring Plato, Bentham, and Maslow into the equation, but the idea of an external moral source was not commonly ascribed to.

A quick look at just a few of the comments posted (282) was interesting. Some expressed the opinion that the idea of natural human rights was absurd.  One writer said that the idea of a true moral order is “grimly persistent” (“Sere”, May 29, in Comments).  In the same place, “Ilya” responded that merely human (stateless) persons have no rights.   A Zen Buddhist (“Musho”) reframed the question in terms of the causes of human suffering.  “RPW” said the article was not philosophical but psychiatric, a symptom of our collective loss of love.  Others cited the Founding Fathers relative to the Bill of Rights, spoke of rights as mere social contracts, or wandered into deep waters with Kierkegaardian and Hegelian discussions.

Of course, no one can respond to everything. And God does not need us to defend the Divine Existence and the Divine call for a true moral order, which, by the way I find to be wonderfully, not grimly, persistent.  Still, I’m curious. Do we still hold with the Founding Fathers that there are self-evident human rights? If so, are they God-given?  If so, what do we do about competing divine claims about human rights as expressed by the plethora of religious authorities Or, are they inherent to the nature of humanity? Or, are they social constructs and if so, do they have universal significance or are they relative only to their society?  Are there, as the UN states, universal human rights? Are they real if we do not enforce them?  How can they be enforced if they are not recognized? How do they apply to refugees and stateless people? In short, how would you respond to Boylan’s provocative question?

5 thoughts on “A question to those once known as “the audience”

  1. Chris,

    I thought of you this morning as I was reading a link sent to me on FB. It was from the Times on the fact that a church which had been destroyed during the revolution was rebuilt by the army and others from many faiths. But it reminded me of one of my sermons as well about how the Christians would encircle the Muslims to protect them during the revolution in Egypt and then on Sundays the Muslims would encircle the Christian churches during mass so that they too could worship in peace. The article talked about how 84% (I believe that’s the right number but I could be off by a few) of the population of Egypt believes the country should support the religious rights off not only Muslims but Christians and Jews as well. I was excited to hear this as I am excited to hear things you share with people working together of various faiths to restore the Palestian homeland and make it safe for all, not just one religious group.

    For me, I can see how social media can open the world to more than their limited corner and show them that God does not just love one people (religion, nationality, race, etc), but loves all people. I’m not likely to be a revolutionary, but I do believe we need to work for the rights of the oppressed and this is one place this can be done by helping others see God in their neighbor.

  2. Hey Chris,
    Thanks for your post. It got me thinking about things I had not thought about before. There is a way in which our digital world is offering us ever increasing ways to live our lives as an audience. We literally live in front of our screens as we do something we call “socializing.” We live in front of our screens as we read dozens of articles about the atrocities happening around the world. We sit in front of our screens and observe what is happening in the world. There is nothing wrong with this if our observations lead to action. We are called to be participants in our communities, our societies, our world. WE see that we may act. This action is a response to the grace shown to us in Christ. How grateful I am that God did not sit at a screen and simply observe as we slipped further from our heavenly home. Thanks for the gentle reminder, and for your participation in the world you see.

    • Jody, that is a brilliant observation. What if God had just sat back and watched the show? Exactly so. The digital world gives us opportunities, but it also makes it possible for us to see everything as if it were one step removed from reality, like television. We have to distance ourselves from movies and TV: they are in our face but we learn to tell ourselves that what is happening is not really real. We separate ourselves from it. Compare this with internet news feeds and youtube video reporting at the grassroots level, which can actually be quite real. We have the potential now to see our world up close even from far away, and while it is disquieting to have this information, it also empowers us, if we allow compassion to sway us and move us into loving actions. Of course, no one can respond to everything. I believe the Holy Spirit is active in guiding us into appropriate engagement, if we can learn to attend to the Spirit’s guidance.

  3. Chris,

    What a thoughtful and beautiful post. It fits right into the ancient and ongoing conversation about relativism that generations before us have discussed–and will continue to discuss long after we are gone. To me, the issue of natural versus socially-endowed rights comes in the shadow of what I believe are God-given rights. We are all children of God, and our relationship with God gives us certain rights. And since everyone in the world is a child of God, regardless of whether they accept it or not, it follows that there are human rights that can and should be protected the world over, regardless of social convention. Now, perhaps that is my bias. But for me, it provides a starting point for talking about how we care for each other and how we stand up for those whose rights are denied.

  4. Spot on in my book, Susan, and thanks for chiming in. Since we have Leviticus which in one place advise us to love our neighbors as ourselves, as well as the wise Jewish philosopher Hillel (who said, if I remember correctly, “That which you do not want done to you, do not do to others”) and the Christian Jesus (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), I have no problem whatsoever in trusting that human rights are derived from a Divine mandate. If we accept that we are made in the image of God, one thing we can gain from the idea is the collateral point that the image of God is to be cherished and revered and cared for. This is my starting point.

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